The Wordchipper: Ah-one ah-two...
Gauper, Lary. "The Wordchipper: Ah-one ah-two...", The Fargo-Moorhead Extra, 29 October 2010, 3.
I have a piece of videotape of the late Lawrence Welk, standing there in the California sunshine as he says, “I grew up on a farm in North Dakota, and some of you have asked me why I left the farm for a life of music. Well, partly because I love music so very much and partly because cleaning out the barn was just not my cup of tea.”
Born on March 11, 1903, in the small “Germans from Russia” community of Strasburg, N.D., located in the south-central part of the state, Mr. Welk went on to a career in music that hasn’t been duplicated and, perhaps, never will be. Particularly because of his heavy German accent, his plainspoken, simple ways and his deeply-rooted values of decency and integrity, Welk has been the brunt of many a comedian’s jokes. Stan Freberg, the great radio satirist, did a wonderfully funny piece on the band leader. I’ll always remember the way Freberg ended his popular 45-r.p.m. recording: “Would somebody please turn off the bubble machine!” Bubbles were, of course, an icon of Welk’s trademark “Champagne Music,” featuring his lovely “Champagne Lady” who was, for many years, Alice Lon.
In July 1958, Welk brought his entire orchestra, including the four talented Lennon Sisters, back to North Dakota for a concert in Minot. This was at the height of his popularity when he was doing not one but two nationally televised shows each week. One was sponsored by Chrysler, primarily promoting Dodge and Plymouth automobiles, and the second show’s sponsor was Geritol, a dietary supplement. I was a lad of 15, the same age as Kathy Lennon (I must confess to a bit of a crush on her) and begged my dad to take me to this once-in-a-lifetime performance. He did, and it was fantastic: front-page news all across North Dakota; local excitement in Minot at a fever pitch.
During the week of the Minot performance, Welk took time to drive the 360-mile round-trip to his Strasburg, N.D., home. Indeed, he was an American original, an outstanding musician who demanded excellence from his troupe. His band members have told us time and again that, with their boss, “what you saw is what you got.” He was not a phony; he was real to the core.
Knowing Welk’s work ethic, I was dumbfounded at the performance of Janet and Kathy Lennon and, I believe, younger sister Mimi at the Fargo Civic Auditorium about six years ago (Dianne and Peggy, who with Janet and Kathy comprised the original four Lennon Sisters, are retired). The appearance was part of what was called “Life’s Options,” attracting thousands of seniors from throughout the Upper Midwest. Many had driven hundreds of miles and waited all day to hear the Lennons. This audience, including me, wanted to hear the sisters sing. Instead, they talked. And talked. And talked some more. Mostly about their life, facts which most of the audience already knew, and they spent lots of time in self-promotion of their show in Branson, Missouri.
When the girls asked that the house lights be turned on, inviting the audience to ask questions, I stood up: “Thanks for being here today, but many of us came to hear you sing. Would you please sing for us?” The three then sang one brief song and left the stage. And I left with the feeling that their old boss would not have tolerated that kind of short-changing of an audience. Why did they think they were coming to Fargo? To talk?
Now for some good news: Lawrence Welk’s music will be brought to life once again, right here in River City. The Jazz Arts Big Band, along with some of the stars of Jasper’s Jubilee Theater and other local and regional singers and musicians, will present “Keep a Song in Your Heart: The Music of Lawrence Welk” on Sunday, November 7th, at 1:00 p.m., at the Ramada Plaza Suites in Fargo. Former WDAY-TV weather wizard and still the best magician in the region, Jack Sand, will be the emcee. For more information on tickets, call 218-359-4529 or go to www.JazzArtsFM.com. The Jazz Arts group puts on outstanding shows, and this should be one a lot of folks in this area will not want to miss. Lawrence Welk’s Champagne Music and heritage live on!
For audio interviews with various Welk colleagues, friends and family members, including Fern Renner Welk, Mr. Welk’s wife of 61 years, click on over to the excellent, award-winning website maintained by Michael Miller, head librarian of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at North Dakota State University. Simply Google “Germans from Russia Heritage Collection” to find the website.